U.S. forced to store plutonium for now, must decide what to do with it later

November 15, 1993|By New York Times News Service

In 16 unremarkable concrete bunkers built by the Army for a war with Hirohito and Hitler, the United States has begun assembling about 50 tons of plutonium, a vast stockpile of one of the most expensive materials ever produced and perhaps the most important to safeguard. The Department of Energy says the bunkers, each about the size of a two-car garage, are going to be used for interim storage, meaning six or seven years.

But plutonium, which was invented by the Energy Department's predecessor, the Manhattan Project, may turn out to be the hardest thing on Earth to dispose of. And at the Energy Department, "interim" can have an elastic meaning. "Immediate" tends to mean several years. "Several years" can mean never.

President Clinton announced the formation of an inter-agency task force Sept. 27 to consider how much plutonium the nation needs in the post-Soviet era, and how to dispose of what is surplus. The Energy Department also is drawing up a plan for its far-flung weapons production complex for the next century and an environmental impact statement for the whole weapons program. The National Academy of Sciences also is studying the question. But officials are choosing among a short list of unattractive options.

At the plant where the plutonium is piling up, Pantex, near Amarillo, Texas, Rich Loghry, the general manager, said when asked what would happen next, "I don't think people have a really good answer for what is going to happen to the plutonium." One hurdle is psychological; the Energy Department, the intellectual heir to the Manhattan Project, cannot bring itself to think of its invention as waste.

Developing a consensus may take years, and in the meantime there is "interim storage."

Storage, in fact, may be the leading option, but even this is tricky. Plutonium loses half its radioactivity every 24,000 years, so it will reach background levels of radioactivity in 10 "half-lives," or 240,000 years; the American political system is focused largely on problems that can be solved in less than four.

In the short term, storage is affordable. Pantex's operating budget is $210 million, much of it for security.

Plutonium is more expensive than gold, although the cost of an ounce is difficult to calculate, since the price includes the cost of cleanup and that has not been paid yet. Tens of billions of dollars will be required to clean up messes in South Carolina and the state of Washington that were left behind by plutonium production.

Plutonium is more important to safeguard than is gold; stolen gold can't blow up a city. One solution might be to put it at the very center of Fort Knox, and leave the gold at the periphery, to distract thieves.

But what is plutonium's value? Department officials say the material has tremendous energy value, which is true; a recent study for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory said that it could be diluted to provide one-third of the fuel for seven large civilian reactors that now run on uranium, and would take 20 years to use up.

That is almost too long, since most of the reactors now running are nearing the end of their economic lives and are likely to be retired in 20 years.

But the utilities do not even want to discuss taking the plutonium. Executives complain that such discussions only reinforce the public's association of nuclear power with nuclear war. Besides, lightly enriched uranium, which they use now, is cheap.

But a reactor is the simplest way to actually destroy the plutonium, atom by atom, just the way it was produced.

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